Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.
On the outskirts of Minneapolis, in a town called Eden Prairie, a vegetable patch is growing. This is not an average kitchen garden; the corn, beans, melons and tomatoes have a mission greater than feeding their gardener. Instead of filling plates with salad and side dishes, the plants here serve as canaries in a coal mine, providing early warning for problems cropping up on nearby grass.
Known as indicator plants, the vegetables are part of a holistic approach to turfgrass management on the professional practice fields of the Minnesota Vikings football team.
“The public thinks we practice at the Metrodome (inMinneapolis); they don’t know we have fields,” says Grant Davisson, Head Sports Turf Manager for the Vikings, who play in an indoor stadium. “But we have a lot of activity all year on this turf, from the end of March through the end of the season.”
With higher humidity and rainfall – they receive 30 inches per year – disease poses a challenge for managing the 210,000 square feet of turfgrass the Vikings practice on. Leaf spot, pythium, pink snow mold and Brown Patch are chronic problems.
Many high-use sports fields rely on a combination of play rotation and pesticides, but this facility is next to a riparian area protected by law. Because all of the runoff dumps into the wetland, Davisson is conservative in his turf treatments and prefers alternative means to controlling problems. “We don’t want any runoff, and we want as few applications as possible.”
That’s where the vegetables come in. In a 10-foot wide swath, watermelons, corn, tomatoes and soybeans act as sentinels for conditions that spur disease, succumbing to sickness a few days before the problems show up on the turf.
Rooted in the knowledge that disease outbreaks require the right environmental conditions to thrive, Davisson watches his vegetables for signs of oncoming turf problems. “Watermelons get hit by pythium, and though it’s not the same pythium that affects turf, they both need the exact same conditions,” he said, speaking of the disease that sends chills through turf managers’ spines due to its rapid destruction.
“It’ll hit the watermelons on the third hot, humid day and they’ll get killed, often by July 1. But once it shows up on the watermelons, I have a day or two lead time to spray the turf.” That’s all the time he needs to target his controls, knocking the dread fungus back behind scrimmage lines to keep it in check.
“Then we get cloudy days and the tomatoes get leaf spot. I’ve tracked it – three to four days later the turf gets leaf spot.” Affecting crown, rhizomes and roots in addition to leaves, in the heat of summer it kills the turf, leaving bare spots. “I hate leaf spot. It’s a bigger problem on rye than bluegrass.”
Replicating his plots in full sun and part shade, Davisson mimics the variable conditions on his fields, which receive differing amounts of sunlight. Applications of fertilizer are made at the same time to keep turf and vegetables even.
In addition to watermelon and tomatoes to watch for pythium and leaf spot, Davisson has corn and soybeans for rust. The peppers and peas are “because I like to eat them.” Harvested produce goes to coaches and staff.
Following a set schedule for fungicides calls for applications to be made every 90 days, and on fields this size, every application cost $35,000 to $40,000. But through this vegetable sentinel system, Davisson has been able to stretch out applications to 142 days between applications, saving money and lowering the impact on the environment. “It’s easily to most successful means to gauge disease,” he said, “and I save two applications per year. That’s a lot of money.”